Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Abuse of Language

A few months ago, I was visiting Project Vote Smart. If you’ve never been there, I suggest taking a look and bookmarking it. It lists candidates for state and federal elections, along with their issue positions and their voting and financial records. It’s an excellent website for non-partisan information on candidates for office.

A few months ago, there was a banner on the site that read, “Save Democracy from Politics.” I contacted them to point out that the banner should probably say, “Save the Republic from Politics”, since a republic and a democracy are not the same thing, and we’re supposedly living in the former.

Democracy used to mean rule by the majority, where anything could be made law so long as enough people (or enough representatives) approved of it. Democracy used to mean a government of men, not of laws. In a democracy, the only rights people had were the rights the majority hadn’t taken away. It was more about power, privilege and control than freedom and lawful equality.

Contrast that with a republic, where the role of government was to serve, not rule. A republic used to mean a government of laws, not men. In a republic, people had rights that were impervious to the will of the many. Power was deliberately checked and diffuse, and the law applied to all men.

Several weeks after contacting PVS, I received an email reply about my comment. It faintly admonished me that over the years, the President, members of Congress, newscasters, librarians, etc., have all begun to use the two words interchangeably. The dictionaries have been changed. These days, therefore, both words now refer to any system of government where people elect representatives. Isn’t that nice?

A hundred years ago, I doubt that anybody would ever make such an absurd statement. It bothers me that the meaning of words can change because enough politicians misuse them. But I don’t care about the semantics so much as about how now there’s a vacuum in our language. There used to be two words with different meanings. Now they both mean the same thing, and not what either of them used to mean.

Is it by mere coincidence that our actual system of government has degenerated into more of a democracy than a republic over the last few generations? There doesn’t seem to be any limit to what our government can do. Our law books are a blizzard of mandates and restrictions on every sort of human activity- and all because enough people gave enough bureaucrats enough power.

No, I don’t think it’s a coincidence. It’s a testament to the insidious power of the manipulation of language, information, and the way people think. It is an almost imperceptible indication that something’s not right in the United States. In Politics and the English Language, Orwell wrote:

" is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts."


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